As director of the Moscow Shchusev State Architecture Museum, David Sarkisyan was one of the most important figures of the post-Soviet cultural scene in Russia and a leading campaigner for Moscow's architectural heritage.
He was a passionate defender of the architectural gems in the Russian capital from the Neo-Classical beauties of the Tsarist era to the more stark early Modernist buildings of communist times. He fought manfully to stem the tide of cavalier property development that looked set to sweep away many of these buildings that were not adequately protected by the city authorities.
They key buildings to be lost in the early 2000s were within a mile of the museum: the Moskva hotel, a Stalinist classic demolished in 2003, the Manezh, a stunning Neo-Classical building, burnt down in 2004, and Voyentorg , an Art Deco military department store demolished in 2004. Sarkisyan fought a losing battle to preserve these buildings but his efforts, as the founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, did at least save the city from some of the crasser excesses of commercial development.
Sarkisyan transformed the museum from an underfunded backwater into an exhibition space brimming with life and a headquarters for his conservation work. There he mixed architecture with art, photography and graphic design, and in doing so he attracted a broad public to architecture.
Sarkisyan's office was famous — full of wonderful books, extraordinary objects, photographs and glittering baubles, and there was just room for two chairs before his overflowing desk and constantly ringing telephones. Here, a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, those tired of Moscow's punishing pace could pause in beautiful surroundings and be buoyed up by a wonderful story from Sarkisyan. A playful, childlike side to his nature brought humour even to the darkest hour. He was a man who lived his work: he rarely went home, preferring to catch a few hours 'rest on an uncomfortable leather sofa in the museum.
His appointment as director on January 1, 2000, was as dramatic as the President Boris Yeltsin's resignation a few hours earlier. He was unknown in architectural circles, being a pharmacologist who had developed a drug, ipidacrine, which was used in Japan for illnesses including Alzheimer's. The decision to make him director of the museum was made by the Minister for Construction at the time, Anvar Shamuzafarov. There was huge opposition to his appointment but he quickly won over his detractors who were charmed by this handsome, goodhumoured, quick-witted Armenian.
Sarkisyan was born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1947. He studied physiology at Moscow State University and began a doctorate in pharmaceuticals, which he never completed. While at university he married a fellow student; they were divorced in the early 1990s.
Sarkisyan's next reincarnation was as a television documentary maker, taking advantage of the newly opened national archives. He also began making films with his great friend, the director Rustam Khamdamov. Sarkisyan was the first assistant director of the film Anna Karamazoff (1991), directed by Khamdamov and starring the French actress Jeanne Moreau. Later Sarkisyan said: "At 44 I walked on the red carpet next to Jeanne Moreau. It was a glamorous end to my career in film. "A photograph of himself with the film star hung in his office.
Within days of Sarkisyan's installation the museum leapt to life and was soon the venue for two or three exhibitions a month, many featuring young artists and photographers, as well as older talents that had long gone unrecognised. One event was held to mark the 100th birthday of the avant-garde architect Lydia Komarova. Sarkisyan had ordered a huge pink cake in the form of one of her Constructivist designs: she blew the candles out from her wheelchair.
Sarkisyan was well versed in family trees and lineages, and they were an important part of his storytelling. Although chaotic, he was a brilliant curator with a great sense of the dramatic: he had a talent for catchy titles, and always found an inventive and elegant solution to the limitations of a small budget. One wing of the museum desperately needed funding for repairs; when it did not come, Sarkisyan rebranded it as "The Ruins" and held exhibitions in the stripped-back rooms, accessible by a 19th-century cast-iron staircase. Sarkisyan also invited the architect Aleksandr Brodsky into a cosier part of the ruins. With his unfailing collector's eye, Sarkisyan recognised that he was one of the best architectural talents in the country and that his presence would bring a creative richness to the museum territory.
The same impetus brought the architectural practice Meganom — run by Yuri Grigoryan — to the museum. Brodsky and Grigoryan became close friends of Sarkisyan. He had a gift for friendship and collected friends as he collected everything else. He was adored by women, and thanks to him, international cultural figures such as Peter Noever and Zaha Hadid were press-ganged into the fight for Moscow's historic buildings. Besides his hundreds of friends from among the leading lights in art and architecture, Russian and foreign, perhaps his closest friend and confidant towards the end was his driver Valeri Pisarev, a testament to his unpretentiousness.
Sarkisyan would fight to the last in the gruelling and unequal battle to save Moscow's buildings from rapacious property development. Knowing the limitations of his power, he used it cleverly, often through the press, and was prepared to speak his mind when he thought that the city authorities had overstepped the mark. But he paid for his forthrightness: the museum budget suffered, and the city fathers made it clear that he should not be buried in a central Moscow cemetery.
Moscow's preservation movement gathered force under his leadership; the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society was launched under his auspices: he made sure that its first press conference was attended by the great and the good. When it was clear that a building was lost, he would offer the museum as storage for whatever architectural details could be salvaged. On his deathbed he said that he was writing to the developers behind the demolition of the Children's World department store, also near the museum, asking them to send all interior fragments that could be saved to the museum.
Sarkisyan was a great friend to Viktor Melinkov and Yekaterina Melnikova, the son and granddaughter of the avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov. With his death she has lost an important ally in the fight to open a state-owned museum in the celebrated Melnikov House.
A true collector and aesthete with an ever-inquiring mind, Sarkisyan was proud of the museum and its collection. Under him it was the nerve centre of Moscow's conservation movement — his legacy to the city's wonderful but endangered architecture.
David Sarkisyan, architectural conservationist, was born on September 23, 1947. He died of lymphoma on January 7, 2010, aged 62
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